One of the difficulties of dealing with important subjects in a historical context is the tendency to make problems feel like they’re a thing of the past. Films like “The Help” sanitize racism, turning a history of violence and pain into a feeble, self-important dramedy and a deeply entrenched-issue into a simple triumph-over-adversity narrative. The strength of “1963,” the Judy Simpson Cook play now running at Threshold Repertory Theatre, is that it does try to deal with some of the root causes and doesn’t downplay the pain felt by the characters.
The play follows three families in 1963 North Carolina. Molly (Eden Teichman) is the sixteen-year-old daughter of a local principal Ezra (Mark Gorman), who’s concerned about the violence and anger that might come from the inevitable desegregation of their town. Ezra and his wife, Sarah Jane (Kristen Kos), are tolerant people for their time, but neither have tried to take a stand against bigotry. Ezra’s brother Zeke (Mike Kordek) is a blowhard lawyer who claims desegregation is the worst thing that can happen to the south while his wife, Laura (Margaret Nyland), mostly stays silent.
Molly, meanwhile, befriends James (Maurice McPherson), a bright African-American boy who tutors her in algebra. James wants to take part in the sit-ins and marches heating up around the country, and his mother Lou (Michele Powe) encourages him, but his father, Joe (Kyle Taylor), forbids it, fearing the worst will happen to his son.
“1963″ is sometimes too pat in its depiction of redemption and young idealism trumping old reticence, and the use of algebra as a metaphor for equality is clunky. Yet the cast is consistently strong in their portrayals of shifting attitudes towards race relations, from Zeke’s shift from hypocrisy to advocacy to Ezra’s continued struggle to take action. The play is never more effective, however, than when Joe and Lou take center.
Taylor is an extremely fit man, and he has a a commanding voice and presence. Joe is a character too frightened by what could happen to his family to take action against what he knows is wrong. It makes for a fascinating combination of actor and role, turning Joe into a man who has to contain his own strength in order to keep his loved ones safe. Powe’s spirited yet wise take on Lou, meanwhile, shows a woman who’s ready to fight but also completely aware of what the consequences are. Whenever either of the two tell their son or their white friends about the terrible things they’ve experienced, the play takes on startling immediacy, cutting through the earlier earnestness to find something far more direct.